Special Release: Managing Emergencies in a Water World

Buchanan with part of a water filtration system. Credit: Paula Buchanan

Water is one of the things that none of us can live without. Yet, it’s taken for granted in so many parts of the parts, and even in parts of the U.S. But what would happen if we ever hit day zero, or the day that the water ran out. That probably won’t happen but Paula Buchanan is here to tell us that we still need to be vigilant.

Buchanan is a disaster scientist and emergency management researcher.  She studies water stewardship, or how we can more effectively use our limited water resources. She’s also one of AGU’s Voices for Science Advocates. Voices for Science is an initiative of AGU’s Sharing Science Program that centers around training scientists to address the critical need for communicating the value and impact of Earth and space science to key decision makers, journalists, and public audiences.

This is the first of three episodes where we’ll feature Advocates from different scientific disciplines. In this first episode, Buchanan talks about what it’s like to work in diverse communities in Atlanta, travel to the bottom of a rock quarry featured in The Walking Dead TV show, call out Senator Cory Booker, and more!

This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Kayla Surrey.


Nancy Bompey:             00:00                So Shane-

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                You have to say hi first.

Nancy Bompey:             00:03                Hi Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:05                Hello. We’ve been doing this long enough.

Nancy Bompey:             00:08                I think we discussed in a very recent episode, so I moved recently into an old house, but we were figuring out all the things, when you move into a new place and you’re trying to figure out all the things. And we tried to figure out if we had … There should be a pipe that goes to the outside so we can water the outside and stuff like that, and we’re going to need to figure it out, because it’s not getting cold yet, but when it gets cold you should turn off that line because it can freeze and it can burst and that could be bad.

Shane Hanlon:              00:37                Yeah. I can relate to that. My partner and I, we live in a very old house right now, and it has kind of an unfinished attic or part of it is unfinished, and so there’s a bathroom upstairs though too, and there’s a pipe that runs basically outside of the finished part.

Nancy Bompey:             00:57                So it’s not insulated.

Shane Hanlon:              00:58                It’s not insulated or at least very well. So last year, it was a very cold couple of weeks here in DC, it was like what? Down to the 20s or something. We had a couple of weeks where it was pretty wild, and my partner and I were getting ready to go to a baby shower or something. We’re in the basement, so the bottom of our three floors, and I hear this cacophony of sound, my dog starts barking, I’m like, what the heck is that? And I walk up to our middle level and there is water pouring out of our light fixture in our dining room. And so I run upstairs, open the side door to where this pipe is and the pipe’s just split. It’s like an inch pipe and water is just shooting out of it everywhere.

Nancy Bompey:             01:40                Oh my God.

Shane Hanlon:              01:42                Luckily I knew where the shutoff valve was, run the whole way downstairs, turned the shutoff valve off the entire house. And instead of going to a baby shower, we spent the entire day mopping up all the water. We ripped out insulation, our poor dog didn’t know what the heck was going on. He just jumped on our bed and stayed away from all of it. Yeah, it was bad. It was like 20 degrees outside. So luckily, we shut off enough electricity, it was all fine. We ended up getting it fixed in a couple of days. But yeah, learned the hard way about old, I guess, infrastructure and houses.

                                                            Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s Podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in the lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nancy Bompey:             02:35                And I’m Nancy Bompey.

Shane Hanlon:              02:37                And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

Nancy Bompey:             02:46                So you were super lucky that you guys hadn’t left the house yet. I mean, if you had been 15 minutes later and you were gone.

Shane Hanlon:              02:53                We were getting ready to leave. Yeah, we are incredibly fortunate.

Nancy Bompey:             02:57                We’re talking about this, as always we have a point.

Shane Hanlon:              03:05                We do have a point, yeah. A little bit of backstory for this specific episode. So this is the first of three of part of a special series highlighting some of our Voices for Science advocates. So Voices for Science is this initiative through the Sharing Science Program, which is what I’m part of, and it’s centered around training scientists about how to communicate the needs and the value and impact of earth and space science to decision makers and journalists and policy makers and non-science public and all of that deal. So basically, we recruit folks from our membership to be in a couple of different tracks, kind of more policy focused and more communications and media focused, and it’s a really great opportunity.

                                                            It offers scientists interested in these different areas specialized training to hone their skills. So it’s a year long program. We bring folks in to do intensive training at the very beginning and then work with them throughout the year. And so during our April training, which was the beginning of the cohort, we had a chance to interview three new advocates, and the first of which you’ll hear today.

Paula Buchanan:           04:18                Hi everyone, I’m Paula Buchanan, I’m a doctoral student in emergency management at Jacksonville State University, and I study what is called water stewardship, or how we can more effectively use our limited water resources.

Shane Hanlon:              04:31                So Paula is a water and data expert, and we were very stoked to chat with her about exactly what someone’s studying emergency management does. What does a normal day look like for you? Or is there a normal day?

Paula Buchanan:           04:45                There is the normal day. Sometimes I’m actually just doing regular coursework, because I’m in the second year of my program. Sometimes I’m actually working with what’s called the Georgia Association of Water Professionals in Georgia or GAWP for short. I do a lot of work with their public education outreach committee. One of the things that is concerning about the research that I do is how to more effectively communicate risk of water or a lack of water to more vulnerable populations. And so GAWP already have a lot of stuff in place. What’s also unique about the state of Georgia is that they actually have, in there, I think there’s social studies or civics curriculum. I’m so old, I think it’s one of those, but I don’t know what it’s called, or civics in my day, but they actually have water stewardship to a degree as a part of their elementary school curriculum, which is …

                                                            I know I am looking at-

Shane Hanlon:              04:45                Really?

Paula Buchanan:           05:37                I’m looking at Shane’s face and he’s like, “What!”. Yeah, I found this out recently, I didn’t know either. And so it’s interesting that they’re actually trying to teach youngsters about this in, I think, K-6. It’s a mandatory part of their curriculum. So that’s why I’m looking at that state.

Shane Hanlon:              05:54                Is that unique to the state, because that’s not something I’m super familiar? Is that because it is where it is?

Paula Buchanan:           05:59                I think so. So if anyone knows anything about the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida, they have more than just a SEC college football rivalry, the rivalry extends to water. So there’s this river called the Chattahoochee that flows through, I think, definitely through Georgia, maybe through parts of North Florida, and they’ve been in what’s called the legal water wars for a long time. The good news for the state of Georgia is they’ve actually won the water wars recently. The bad news is it’s probably going to go up to the court of appeals, possibly to the Supreme Court if Alabama and Georgia have their way, because the college football thing is also kind of translated into water too. It’s fighting rights, so to speak.

                                                            And so one of the things I think the state of Georgia has realized is, hey, we won this battle, but can we win the war? We have to get people to not water their lawns when it’s raining or something like that, or just brush your teeth and turn the water off just a little, or not put oils down the drain or stop using garbage disposals because those are bad too. They’re fighting to access the water.

Shane Hanlon:              07:06                I can’t imagine fighting for water rights.

Nancy Bompey:             07:10                I know, I guess here obviously in DC we’re not one of those places that’s really stressed, but I mean, there are some science fiction stories, but I think it’s becoming closer to reality with climate change. I mean, this is going to be a reality that people fight over water. It’s no joke.

Shane Hanlon:              07:25                Yeah. And that’s why it’s good that there are folks like Paula out there to communicate how important is type of stuff is.

Paula Buchanan:           07:33                My goal is how to more effectively communicate the risk of water scarcity to more vulnerable populations. To number one, let them know that we could become Cape Town, South Africa that had, what they called, day zero where they were going to run out of water. That could definitely happen in Atlanta, and it could definitely happen in Alabama, Georgia or Florida for that matter, so we need to conserve. And also to empower people to actually take control of it. So we can come off the ivory tower of academia and tell people, “This is what you should do, because I say so.” That’s no good.

Shane Hanlon:              08:09                I just need to have you follow me around and just be like, “This is what you shouldn’t do.”

Paula Buchanan:           08:15                And honestly, as a woman of color, I don’t really feel like being in that kind of overseer role, it just doesn’t feel right. So I feel as a woman of color in this field, it’s really important for me to try to empower other people of color who are more likely to be more vulnerable populations that you can take control of this, you can actually conserve water, you can create green space in your neighborhood to help filter water and things like that.

Nancy Bompey:             08:38                How does it happen that a city like Atlanta or wherever could run out of water? How does that happen? And then what would happen if that actually were the reality?

Paula Buchanan:           08:49                If that were the reality, we would probably have to get water from other states, if possible, other countries. It’d be very, very expensive. Unfortunately, Atlanta, like a lot of older cities, has really old crumbling infrastructure. When I first started researching their pipe system, they still use clay pipes.

Nancy Bompey:             09:08                Oh my God.

Paula Buchanan:           09:09                The looks on their faces. Yes, they still use clay pipes that can crumble. If you watch local Channel 2 news in Atlanta, you’ll see there’s always a water main break. There’s also a lot of new industry coming in, and when they come in they kind of do whatever they want. So they’ll just start digging somewhere and hit one of those clay pipes and of course, since it’s clay, there is no replacement for it. But one of the things that Atlanta is doing really well is their Department of Watershed Management, shout out to the people from there I know, I actually participated in their water safety ambassador program, which was a way to increase civic engagement and to let more people know about water being a scarce resource.

Shane Hanlon:              09:45                That’s great.

Paula Buchanan:           09:46                And I even got a hard hat that says water shed management, and I’m very proud of that.

Shane Hanlon:              09:49                That’s some pretty cool swag.

Paula Buchanan:           09:50                It is, and they gave us a little matching vest too. But one of the issues is that people don’t know, and it’s important that people understand that, yeah, if a new company comes in, another Fortune 500 company moves into Atlanta and decides to do all this construction and hits one of those clay pipes, there’s not a replacement for it. So there’s going to be a boil-water advisory, or it’s going to take a while, or the streets could flood, which happens. So I think a lot of times people get angry and frustrated, sometimes I do too. But I think if people understood what the city is dealing with, with this crumbling, aging infrastructure, maybe they would be a little bit less kind of nasty sometimes, I think.

Shane Hanlon:              10:33                Have you ever been under a boil-water advisory or anything?

Paula Buchanan:           10:36                I mean, I’m sure that I have at some point in my life, but I also fondly recall my grandparents lived in Florida when I was little and my grandma would boil all the water. We were not allowed to drink any water that was not boiled.

Shane Hanlon:              10:47                Just because.

Paula Buchanan:           10:48                Yeah. I’m not actually sure it was bad, but they were convinced.

Shane Hanlon:              10:52                I mean, but it’s kind of like this, I guess, better safe than sorry.

Paula Buchanan:           10:55                True.

Nancy Bompey:             10:56                So then what happens when it does rain?

Paula Buchanan:           10:58                It floods. I love to walk, and I live in a nice neighborhood for walking, so I’ll walk around, and I walk probably several blocks before I see one drain.

Nancy Bompey:             11:11                Wow.

Paula Buchanan:           11:12                So that’s an issue, and you’re getting more people, everyone’s wanting to move to hot-lanta. So you have limited resources, you have an infrastructure that’s not really designed to have millions or tens of millions of people, so it’s just getting to be that something has to be done because it would be incredibly expensive to go through and try to create all those grades.

Shane Hanlon:              11:35                Are you seeing change? Like you were saying about, it’d be really important to go out with like these clay pipes to have people actually see what’s happening and potentially people in a position of power to make that change, is the work you’re doing and others doing, are you seeing this kind of shift in mentality that people are realizing how important this is? Or are we kind of on the front end of that? I guess, in Atlanta, where is that right now?

Paula Buchanan:           12:02                I think it’s slow, but that said, one thing I have to say talking about, again, the Department of Watershed Management, they’re very forward thinking, and also the city’s government about two or three mayors ago, Mayor Shirley Franklin, another black lady, an old lady of color. She decided, hey, this city is going to get big, we’re going to have to do something. And she basically took an old rock quarry, which I can discuss a little bit more in detail later, and she said, “This is going to be our water reserve. This is how we’re going to save this city.” Because Delta was there, Delta was becoming even bigger than it was at the time. And she was very forward thinking saying, “I’m going to focus on water and sewer.” And she was called the poo-poo mayor, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m the poo-poo mayor, call me the poo-poo mayor.”

                                                            She almost had like a [inaudible 00:12:50], like, “Mark my words, I’m going to fight this windmill, I’m going to fight this.” And she turned out to be incredibly spot on, because the city has created this huge rock query, which I can talk about with a little more detail. But it’s actually, for those of you who are Walking Dead fans, it was the scene maybe at the end of season three or season four where Daryl and everyone and Rick take all the walkers and knock them into this big rock quarry. That’s the rock quarry that is now full of water.

Nancy Bompey:             13:20                That’s awesome.

Shane Hanlon:              13:21                Did you get a chance to actually … Have you been out there to visit it?

Paula Buchanan:           13:25                Yes, I did. So at the time, I think it was under maybe Mayor Kasim Reed, they had, what they called it, the Water Safety Ambassador Program. And what they were doing was trying to get people to be community leaders, especially in communities of color, to let people know what are the water issues here and what could we do about it to work as a team to empower each other. And so some friends of mine who were in a group called Urban Explorers had actually gone down to the query, and I was all excited, but I couldn’t get my ticket fast enough, and then they opened another section, then that that sold out. I was like, “I have got to get to the bottom of this query. It’s just going to happen.” So every day, for about six months, at the end of every session of our Ambassador Program, I would raise my hand, and they say, “Paula.” “Are we going to get to do a tour of the quarry?”

                                                            And I did it every single … And like, “Yeah, Paula wants to tour the bottom of the quarry.” I was like, “Well, once it’s full of water, you’ll never be able to do it.” It was kind of a landmark because it’s how you could mark Atlanta or you were getting close to Atlanta when you’d fly in, because you’d see this big hole, massive hole. So we got to go down there, we had our beautiful little vest and our hard hats and they had these kind of golf cart, dune buggies, I don’t really know what they were. And they pile a whole bunch of us in there and we just kind of rev the engine and basically go in an oval, in a circle going down, further down into the bottom of the query, so we got to tour.

                                                            And the way the quarry works is they were going to drill a hole, a big pipe that would go and hit part of either the Chattahoochee or part of a reservoir for it. I honestly can’t remember right now. And so they got the community involved. There was this big drill and we were all going to name the drill. And so there was this social media Twitter campaign like, okay, which one do you want to vote for? And so they called it Driller Mike, because the rapper killer Mike lives in Atlanta-

Nancy Bompey:             13:25                Yeah, he lives.

Paula Buchanan:           15:26                … from Alabama, but he lives … So yeah, we got to see where Driller Mike would be going and take pictures with Driller Mike. It was a really phenomenal experience just to see how big it was, the scale of it, and how it could actually help Atlantans. So I will say shout out to Department of Watershed Management and the city’s government for being very proactive.

Shane Hanlon:              15:49                You know what this reminds me of?

Nancy Bompey:             15:50                I actually think I do.

Shane Hanlon:              15:52                What’s that?

Nancy Bompey:             15:54                Are you going to say that Boaty McBoatface.

Shane Hanlon:              15:55                Exactly. I’ve seen the actual Boaty McBoatface. They didn’t name the ship, right?

Nancy Bompey:             16:04                Right.

Shane Hanlon:              16:05                I think it’s a submersible. It’s like a remote submersible. It was at the EEES meeting this past year.

Nancy Bompey:             16:11                Oh, that’s fun, that’s cool.

Shane Hanlon:              16:13                Actually, I may have got my picture. I don’t know, who knows? But yeah, that’s fun.

Paula Buchanan:           16:18                I would say, this is going to sound weird because I’m not from New Jersey, but I went to a book signing for Senator Cory Booker, major fan. I just think he does really great work. We were just talking about communicating risk, or how do you communicate issues that are hard to communicate to the public. And one of my little wonky things of interest is I love what’s called data vizes or data visualizations, how you basically use visuals to communicate information. He was talking, and it was a really small group. It was weird, he came to Atlanta and he was in this huge auditorium and there were maybe like 50 to 100 people, and it could have fit 500, so he could basically see each of our faces. I think he asked something about a data visualization tool, and I got this little light bulb over my head.

                                                            And I didn’t realize the room was so small, he saw me do it, and I had my big Tulane University shirt on because that’s where I graduated from undergrad, and he’s like, “Tulane girl, did I say something exciting or something?” He called me out, and I’m like, “Oh my God, Cory Booker is calling me out, this is kind of awkward.” And I was like, “Well, yes you did. You started talking about data visualizations,” and he’s like, “Well, let’s talk afterwards.” And so we had this conversation about how you could more effectively use them, what are the good tools, are there any restrictions on privacy information that you put in these tools. And so I actually got to talk to, I think, maybe his deputy director or chief of staff and just had a really good conversation about how you can use these tools to more effectively communicate across multiple people, multiple languages and cultures to get the same message out to different people.

Shane Hanlon:              17:59                Well, we both live in DC and we’ve both kind of worked in politics or policy with Jason, so I guess we both have met politicians before.

Nancy Bompey:             18:06                Bit my fair share.

Shane Hanlon:              18:07                Have you met anyone you’ve geeked out over?

Nancy Bompey:             18:07                Probably.

Shane Hanlon:              18:11                Probably?

Nancy Bompey:             18:12                I’m like a very shy person, and I don’t want to talk to them and I run away.

Shane Hanlon:              18:18                I love this idea of just picturing you just seeing someone, you’re like, “Oh, I want to talk to that person.” And then literally just turning around and running away, scampering away.

Nancy Bompey:             18:28                Yeah. I am such a nerd.

Paula Buchanan:           18:33                I have a public health background, I’ve done things in business, I’ve done communications, right now I’m in emergency management. When I was in public health, I think I wanted to do disaster emergency management, but I didn’t know it was a field. And honestly, when I talk to people who have been in the field much longer, it was not. So for me, it’s great to be able to learn from other people, from other disciplines, because I think especially if you’re in academia like I am, you don’t have that opportunity. So one of the great things about where I am right now, which is at AGU in Washington DC is I’m around a hydrologists, the volcanologist isn’t in the room right now, but you got all these different people doing all these interesting things, and I think it’s great that we can actually learn from each other.

Shane Hanlon:              19:15                I swear we didn’t put her in as a plant.

Nancy Bompey:             19:18                Yeah, right Jane, you fed her that line.

Shane Hanlon:              19:22                No, I was in the room when she said that and my eyes just lit up. I was like, “Oh, this is so great. It’s so nice that …” I mean, one, it’s nice to get a plug, but no, it’s good that the cohort, the Voices of Science folks really are getting out of it what we hope that they get out of it. All right, well that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Nancy Bompey:             19:44                Thanks so much Shane, and of course Lauren also helped with this episode, and of course to Paula for sharing her work with us.

Shane Hanlon:              19:51                This podcast was produced and mixed by Kayla Surrey, and I guess, me.

Nancy Bompey:             19:57                Yes, you did something with this.

Shane Hanlon:              19:59                I did. Yeah, you would think we’d know how to do this by now.

Nancy Bompey:             20:05                So if you like this podcast, please rate and review us. Write a review, it really helps people to find the podcast. You can always find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:              20:16                And be on the lookout for a couple more episodes featuring our Voices for Science folks.

Nancy Bompey:             20:23                As well as our regular episodes.

Shane Hanlon:              20:25                All right, thanks all, and we’ll see you next time.


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